Following the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, communities all over the North and South counted the cost of the three-day struggle which had taken the lives of over 7,000 men. One of the more unusual groups to be affected by the engagement were the Fenian Brotherhood, an organisation committed to securing Ireland’s freedom from British rule. Gettysburg had proved a costly fight for the Fenians; the day after the battle Captain P.J. Downing (1) of the 42nd New York wrote to its leader in the United States, John O’Mahony, to give him an early indication of who had fallen.

42nd New York Memorial at Gettysburg (Photo:Piotrus)

42nd New York Memorial at Gettysburg (Photo:Piotrus)

First Corps Hospital at Gettysburg, PA., July 4, 1863

My Dear O’Mahony,

I am sitting by Denis’ bedside. He has had his leg amputated above the ancle; otherwise, he is in excellent health and spirits, and no further danger is to be apprehended. For myself, I am alright, which, all things considered, I think rather strange. Of the 42d, O’Shea (2) and Fitzharris (3) are seriously hurt. Capt. Rorty (4) is dead. The only thing of him that remains is a letter upon the business of our Brotherhood from the Engineer Corps, which has been handed to me by our Colonel. I have to inform you that Rorty’s death is as severe a loss as Ireland has had for a long time. He surpassed everything in the Army of the Potomac on the 3d inst. He commanded his battery in the most extraordinary brilliant manner. While under a converging fire of one hundred guns from the enemy, and when every other gun was abandoned or disabled, one gun was served unflinchingly by his own hands. In fine, no words can express what he deserves. I do not speak from hearsay. My regiment happened to be the infantry support of his battery, and was placed twenty paces from it, in the rear.

Col. Huston (5), of the 82d (2d N.Y.S.M.), another Irishman of the true stamp, has like wise been killed. But, as I have said, it is impossible to enumerate all, having but a few moments to spare. I would also wish to tell you my views of the battle and how it went generally. Some other chance may soon offer.

Ever fraternally yours,

P.J. Downing.

John O'Mahony, Head Centre of the Fenian movement in the United States (Image via Wikipedia)

John O’Mahony, Head Centre of the Fenian movement in the United States (Image via Wikipedia)

These were just the first Fenians known to have died during the battle- over the coming days it would become clear that many more had been lost. This was in part a symptom of the degree to which many Irish units such as the Irish Brigade and 69th Pennsylvania had been engaged, and the ferocity of the fighting in general. Downing was himself a Fenian recruiter; the fact that he chose to write to the head of the Brotherhood so soon after the fighting is an indication of how passionately he believed in that cause.

(1) Patrick J. Downing, 42nd New York. Rose to rank of Major before muster out with regiment on 13th July 1864. (See Kane 2002: 121)

(2) Captain William O’Shea of Bantry, Co. Cork, 42nd New York. Killed in Action at Spotsylvania, 12th May 1864. (See Kane 2002: 136)

(3) Second Lieutenant Morris Fitzharris, 42nd New York. Mustered out with regiment on 13th July 1864. (See Kane 2002: 121)

(4) Captain James McKay Rorty of Donegal Town, Co. Donegal, Commanding Battery B, First New York Light Artillery. Recording Secretary, Potomac Circle of the Fenian Brotherhood. (See Kane 2002:136-7)

(5) James Francis Xavier Huston, born in Ireland. Received a fatal gunshot wound to the head and leg on 2nd July. (See Hunt 2002: 153)


Hunt, Roger D. 2003. Colonels in Blue: Union Army Colonels of the Civil War, New York

Kane, Michael H. 2002. ‘American Soldiers in Ireland, 1865-67′ in The Irish Sword: The Journal of the Military History Society of Ireland, Vol. 23, No. 91, pp. 103-140

New York Irish-American 7th July 1863: Death of Capt. McK. Rorty- Letter from Capt. Downing 42d N.Y.V. (Tammany Regt)

New York A.G. 1902. Annual Report of the Adjutant-General of the State of New York for the Year 1901